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Things I Learned at the Avatar Premiere

Things I Learned at the Avatar Premiere

James Cameron basked in the glow as Avatar, his latest industry-changing event-film, earned a standing ovation at the Mann Chinese Wednesday night. At the after party Cameron beamed as he stood between two tall women, wife Suzy Amis and ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. “You’re on a roll!” he said to the Hurt Locker director. “You raised the bar,” she said to Cameron.

“I told you,” Bigelow said to me. It looks like Cameron vs. Bigelow will be the story at the Oscars.

Cameron and I talked about how much Steven Spielberg likes the movie: he calls it “an epic spectacle. Cameron creates Oz, and then destroys it.” Cameron showed it to him the first time he screened it all the way through in 3-D, with some of the cast members. Spielberg can’t wait to get his hands on the face-capture technology. Spielberg spent some weeks on the Avatar set, and used Weta performance capture for 3-D Tin Tin, but that film was already shot by the time the real break-throughs occurred at the end of the Avatar production, and Tin-Tin is not photo-real anyway, Cameron pointed out. It’s stylized. UPDATE: (Spielberg has an official quote: “The most evocative and amazing science-fiction movie since Star Wars.”)

Twentieth Century Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos admitted that he grew some white hairs on this production (as he did on Titanic), which racked up R & D costs. He says at a certain point the studio would have settled with breaking even. Will Avatar get to $400 million domestic? Gianopulos won’t commit, but said that based on the Wednesday opening in France, which was double that of Titanic in 1997, he expects the overseas box office to be huge. My estimate of a box office total of $1 billion worldwide would make Fox very happy; they don’t have to make that much to get out.

Gianapulos agreed that the opening weekend (3453 screens) on this unbranded movie (which nonetheless has huge marketing and buzz around it) will not tell the whole story. (Titanic scored the second best December opening at the time, reminds box office guru Gitesh Pandya. The record to beat is I Am Legend‘s $77.2 million.) Cameron has said that the movie is going to have to sell the movie. That is especially true with women, who need word-of-mouth to tell them there’s plenty for them in this sci-fi action romance. UPDATE: Analysts at SNL Kagan estimate that the movie will easily make its money back. The LAT expects the movie to well exceed Fox’s own lowball $50-60 million weekend estimate domestically and score $200-million-plus worldwide.

Needless to say, Fox is counting on Cameron to deliver them a much cheaper sequel. (Budget estimates for Avatar are settling in the $300 million range.) Then the studio can really count profits. (Cameron says Avatar is “the deal of the century.”)

Fox is also delighted that Titanic naysayer, the LAT’s Kenneth Turan, has come around on this one, posting a Wednesday night rave:

Think of “Avatar” as “The Jazz Singer” of 3-D filmmaking. Think of it as the most expensive and accomplished Saturday matinee movie ever made. Think of it as the ultimate James Cameron production. Whatever way you choose to look at it, “Avatar’s” shock and awe demand to be seen. You’ve never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else.

UPDATE: Rotten Tomatoes is trending 82% fresh so far. The NYT’s Manohla Dargis also likes the movie:

With “Avatar” James Cameron has turned one man’s dream of the movies into a trippy joy ride about the end of life — our moviegoing life included — as we know it. Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.

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